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Features : Medical News Last Updated: Oct 20, 2010 - 9:32:01 AM

The psychological games that people play can be complicated and self defeating
By Susan West, PH.D.
Sep 22, 2010 - 11:33:53 AM

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Oh, the psychological games people play! These games are ever changing and expanding. Human beings are amazingly creative at mixing prior psychological games to develop new ones. It is astonishing how often we are playing games without realizing our behavior.

When we are talking about psychological games, we are really addressing the various ways individuals attempt to protect their ego e.g., one’s image of oneself. In general, these games are defenses designed to protect us from feeling emotional pain. However, sometimes as you will see - if you want to prove how lonely you are, you may play the game to confirm your negative self beliefs. Psychological games can get complicated and self defeating.

This article would be remiss if I did not cite Eric Burne, a famous psychiatrist, who wrote "The Games People Play," in which he focuses on the dynamics of human relationships. This article focuses on two categories of games: "pair/group" and "solitaire". To be consistent with my therapeutic style, I am going to use conventional terms in this article keeping in mind that these terms are not always consistent with the official psychological terms.

Pair/Group Psychological Games:

Testing. Testing occurs when you try to determine if another person really cares about you (with out telling the other what you are doing). I see this often with avoidant communication - letters, emails, texts, etc. Let’s say you call a person and leave a message you believe is important. Once your call is returned you find yourself saying "I can’t believe it took you so long to call me," or "how could you wait to so long to call." You were testing the person’s love by the response time, not by the quality of the response. Now no where in your message did you say, "If you call me in 5 minutes I’ll know you love me, yet if you wait until tonight I’ll know that your interest in me is waning, and if you do not respond at all, I’ll know that you do not even like me".

Shoulding. "Should" is such a negative word. When you say "should" to someone it implies that you feel that something must be done. And if it is not, then you feel that the other person is bad, shameful, a disappointment, etc. When you say, "you should have....." There is not much winning here. You are blaming and setting up the other person. Try using the phrase "It would be nice if you [blank]..."

Triangulation (or splitting). This happens a lot, especially in families. Let us say a child wants something: if that child can pit his parents against one another, the child is more likely to get his desire. This is especially useful for the child of divorced parents. For example, a child might say, "Well at dad’s house I get to do...." Then the mom is angry that the rules at dad’s house are more lenient. The mom does not want to be the unlikeable parent, so she may change her rules to match the dad’s rules. The mom may then take up the fight with dad to be more consistent. Yet in the mean time, the child has just gotten his mother to change a house rule. By the way, this does not only happen to divorced parents. Children do this to parents who are in the same house but are out of ear-shot of one another.

Sliming. This happens when someone unloads their emotional issues (or drama) on another person. Now you are not sliming someone if you are confiding to someone, or having a conversation. Sliming occurs when an individual dumps all their emotions on someone else and has no intention of doing anything in terms of a solution. The slimed person is left feeling awful, sticky, and tired (as if someone pours slime all over them). This is a wonderful passive aggressive tactic. If a friend sends you a judging letter that tells you how mad and disappointed they are in you and then closes the correspondence with, "and we will never speak of this issue again." You have been slimed! Yet sliming is some times quite subtle. Be on the look out for confrontations that occur that do not allow for a discussion or dialogue.

Yes, butting. This occurs when you ask someone to help you and then you find reasons for not taking the advice. Let’s say you want to apply for a new job and you ask a friend for help. When your friend gives you advice and you respond each time with a, "yes that sounds good but …". You have just "yes butted" someone. Here is a listening tool. Anytime you say the word "but" take everything you just said before the "but" and ignore it. Focus on what comes after the "but", that’s where the true intent lies.

So how to you handle these psychological games? Listen to what and how people are talking to you. If you feel that you are being an object of someone’s psychological games, then ask the other person to own their behavior. Be assertive. Identify the game, express why you see the situation as such, and ask the person to speak to you more directly. There is also a chance that you might have played one of these games in order to protect your own ego. If that is the case, try to explore what gets in your way of being more direct and assertive in your needs.

Solitaire Psychological Games

Catastrophization. This is when your mind takes one worry and it grows unfettered. Think of mental dominoes. You knock one down and then before you know it all the dominoes are tipped over. People can go from one worry to becoming overwhelmed that the situation becomes unbearable and catastrophic. For example, if you are worried that you might get fired and then started to catastrophize you would then jump to other worries, e.g., "If I lost my job then I would loss my income. Without my income, I would lose my home. If I lose my home I would be homeless." For an individual who is good at this psychological game the fear can be instantaneously morphed into a psychologically paralyzing situation.

Mind Reading. This occurs when you assume knowledge of another person’s is thoughts. No matter how well you know someone or how long you have been together, unless you possess the power of clairvoyance, you do not accurately know what another person is thinking. It is important to ask what is going on, or ask what the person is thinking-you might even be surprised that your assumption was way off.

Self Sabotage. People set themselves up for failure more then they would like to admit. Whether it is wanting to get ten errands done (knowing that you have only two hours), or wanting to lose fifteen pounds in one month. These goals are fine, it’s the unrealistic time constraints associated with the goal that leads to self sabotage. So when you do not complete the errands or lose the weight you believe that you are a failure. This self sabotaging along with the negative self image will further perpetuate self doubt. Just think if you pair self sabotage and mind reading you may begin to think and believe that others judge you in the same negative way.

All or Nothing Thinking. This psychological game occurs when people fail to recognize life’s shades of grey. Now we humans come by this psychological game quite naturally. In a world where infants and toddlers learn by comparing, labeling, and categorizing, then it is natural to think in terms of opposites e.g., good/bad, love/hate, joy/despair, etc.

It is nice when we can say I love you. Yet when someone disappoints you or does something to make you sad, it is a more challenging emotional concept to love someone who is imperfect. In relationships, I often refer to this all or nothing psychological game as "cutting and running." Once someone hurts or disappoints you, you cut that person out of your life and run.

Self Fulfilling Prophecy. If you believe based on previous experiences that people are untrustworthy, then you will become hyper-vigilant to demonstrate and confirm that this belief is true. You will look for proof that you are correct and will eventually find something to confirm your initial belief.


Now let’s talk about how internal psychological games can compound and grow. Let’s say you use a self fulfilling prophecy as one way to reaffirm negative beliefs in yourself, "I can not do anything." Then because of your negative belief you reinforce your low self esteem. Then you develop a self sabotaging goal. The goal is unattainable and it reaffirms your belief that you are a failure. If you then start to catastrophize this negative self belief of being a failure at one thing you might start over generalize yourself doubt in to other aspects of your life, e.g., personal life, work, school, etc. Then your all or nothing thinking takes one disappointment and has you believing that you can not do anything.

The psychological games that we play with others or with ourselves can be challenging. Often individuals struggle to avoid these games. It is challenging to be vulnerable with others and yourself.

However, there are ways to avoid psychological games. First become more aware of your internal thoughts and beliefs. Examine your behavior. Is it assertive or does it perpetuate the psychological game? See if you are able to be more vulnerable and assertive with your needs. If you find that you can not avoid these games (with yourself or others), you may wish to seek the support of a mental health professional.

About the writer: Dr. Susan West has been practicing on Daniel Island since 2005. If you have any questions, please call Dr. West of Daniel Island Psychological Associates, LLC at (843) 278-5402.


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